Let’s take a step back in time 20 years to 1999. Personal computers were becoming more powerful and affordable, and increasingly a common part of work, school, and home life. The Internet as we know it was barely 10 years old. Web pages were starting to populate the World Wide Web at a dizzying rate. Governments were getting into the Internet scene, and Canada was kicking off its Government On-Line initiative, making available online 130 of its most commonly used services, spending $880 million to do it.
By 2005, the Government of Canada was recognized as a world leader in e-government service delivery. A year later, the government declared “mission accomplished” for Government On-Line. To paraphrase the ’80s new-wave band Timbuk3, the future was so bright you had to wear shades.
Yet, almost two decades after the turn of the millennium there is a pervasive sense that government has fallen behind in the digital era. Public-sector organizations at all levels are struggling to meet the service-delivery expectations of citizens living in an Amazon and Netflix world. Capacity is generally lacking to nimbly deal with technology-driven policy issues as diverse as fake news, self-driving cars and the gig and sharing economies. Even the government’s ability to meet its internal digital needs for its workforce has proven to be a challenge. (Exhibit A: the Phoenix pay system in 2016, a bungled rollout that resulted in many workers being overpaid, underpaid or not at all.) In the ’90s, public servants went to the office to have access to the latest technology. Today, they too often have better digital tools at home.
Laudable efforts are being made in many parts of government to address these challenges. But this much is clear: the public service in Canada has not achieved the digital dreams of the turn of the millennium. So, what happened?
Part of the answer is that digital has evolved beyond being merely a back-office function that is largely the purview of chief information officers and their teams. As our lives increasingly intertwine with technology, the ways we interact with institutions and each other are governed more and more by lines of code and algorithms, with far-reaching consequences for government regulations and policy.
Today, every policy issue is a digital issue. Just look south of the border at how the launch of the signature policy initiative of the Obama administration – the Affordable Care Act – was derailed by a faulty website. That’s an example of a basic and obvious problem that online platforms can run into in trying to deliver services. But the impact of digital platforms and new technologies goes farther: It is felt far and wide in the economy, transportation, communications, culture and even social movements. Essentially, no area of government policy has been left untouched.
Digital technology now influences everything government does. It is no longer just a technical challenge; it requires a broader change in mindset and management. Digital skills can no longer be viewed as just an “IT thing.” A baseline level of digital literacy is required for every public servant, particularly those in leadership roles. This is especially true given the speed and scale of digital technology, and its power to improve lives or do harm to the public good.
In Canada, this reality is reflected by increasing efforts to equip public servants with stronger digital skills. There are plans for a Digital Academy for the federal government, modelled after similar endeavors elsewhere, including the UK and Australia. Scott Brison announced the academy in October, when he was still treasury board president and minister of digital government.
The Canadian Digital Service has also started to be active in this space. The federal government organization launched in 2017 to help departments to create user-focused and easy-to-use online services. It has partnered with Dalhousie University to conduct a Digital Training Needs Analysis for the federal public service.
Improving the digital skills of public servants will help supercharge efforts to modernize government. A lack of digital literacy among government executives is a root cause of some of the challenges public-sector organizations face in adapting to and succeeding in the digital era. It’s something I have seen in my work with digital transformation efforts in government over the past decade.
Ultimately, we need to instill public-service executives with what UK technology entrepreneur and advisor Alix Dunn calls “technical intuition” – a practical understanding of the possibilities and risks of technology, and the confidence to call BS on digital projects, policies or practices that don’t work or could even cause harm.
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This was the goal when I partnered with the Institute on Governance to develop the first digital leadership course in Canada for public sector executives. Digital leadership requires an understanding of the big strategic drivers of the digital era, with every government executive having at least some grounding in three disciplines: design thinking, digital technology and data.
Executives also need an understanding of digital-era management practices that can be adopted by their organization (e.g. agile project management practices, which focus on rapid rounds of research, testing and prototyping), including what the implications are for recruitment and retention of staff, procurement and budgeting.
They need to be part of a network of fellow public servants doing similar work in their own organizations as well as across Canada and internationally so that they are better able to sustain the underlying culture change that needs to be sparked to create a government that can operate effectively in the digital era.
This is the basis for the program we put together for the first cohort of our Digital Executive Leadership Program this past December, in which we trained 16 government executives from 11 federal departments, all of them doing a wide variety of jobs; fewer than half of the participants were in technology-focused roles.
At the start of the course, we asked them to assess their level of digital literacy. The average was six out of 10, with nearly all of them assessing themselves as being more digitally literate than their home organizations, which were ranked an average of five out of 10.
After a five-day boot camp, participants assessed their skills again. The average level of digital literacy rose to seven out of 10, and participants made a commitment to change the way they approach their work. We will chart their progress, but already some participants are making concrete changes. This is encouraging because it illustrates how digital leadership is a skill set and a mindset that can be taught, and investment in this area can bring measurable benefits to public-sector organizations.
It is also exciting to see what other people are doing on this front, including our colleagues at the Digital Academy, the Canadian Digital Service, the Ontario Digital Service, and Code for Canada to mention but a few. There are more than 270,000 employees in the federal public service in Canada, and more than three million Canadians who work across all levels of government. To achieve the vision of a modern public service in Canada that is digitally literate and ready to rise to challenges in the decades to come, we need all hands on deck for what could prove to be one of the biggest evolutions in government in our lifetimes.
This article is part of the Wiring Public Policy for Digital Government special feature.
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